On a summer’s evening in July 2015, three young children were taken by their father from Ireland to Algeria while their mother waited for them at home. Kamel Fekkar was supposed to be on a routine visit, so the children’s mother, Gina Davis, from Dun Laoghaire, Dublin, “wasn’t expecting anything at all” when the children were late getting home. It was, after all, Ramadan at the time.
In fact, they never got home at all. In what Gina believes was an “act of vengeance” against her, Kamel took twins Hamza and Halimah, aged four at the time, and Zaineb, seven, to Algeria and told her about it in a phone call that night. “I’ve taken them on holiday and will back on the 20th of August,” he said before hanging up.
In the 12 months leading up to that fateful day, Gina says that she had noticed a change in her estranged husband’s behaviour. He was, she claims, exhibiting deep paranoia and would often send death threats to Gina threatening to take the children away. Despite his worsening behaviour, Gina did not think “in a million years” that “he would take the three smallest children” away from their five older brothers and sisters.
After moving to Britain from Algeria in 1992, Kamel went on to settle in Ireland in 1997 and worked as a taxi driver. Gina explains that everyone he met in Dublin, including her family, thought he “was a really nice man”. The couple married at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland in 1998 and Fekkar took on Gina’s two children from a previous relationship, Khadejah and Yahya.
The couple went on to have six children of their own: Faatimah, Ali, Malo, Zaineb, Halimah and Hamza, but the relationship began to deteriorate after 2012. On 13 June 2014, Gina was given a protection order against her husband after her claim that she was assaulted. Fearing for his mental health, which he put down to “black magic”, Kamel decided to leave Ireland for Algeria a month later and then told Gina that he was “enjoying his freedom and wasn’t coming back.”
He returned a few months later, though, and agreed on joint custody, whereby he would have the children for four days a week. “I thought that that arrangement was fine,” Gina explains. Kamel didn’t.
Despite the children’s Irish passports being locked securely in Gina’s mother’s house, Kamel was still able to get them out of the country, in contempt of court and by a means that did not arouse the suspicions of the border authorities. In the days that followed, Gina tried desperately to contact her children but to no avail: “I would ring 20 times a day and after a number of months of this, and knowing that he was sitting there watching that phone ring, I stopped.”
Gina has only been able to speak to her children sporadically in the past two and half years if someone is available on the other end to answer. “Sometimes I get to speak to them once every two weeks but there have been gaps of two or three months.”
The only contact that she has with her children is through 17-year-old Faatimah, who Kamel rings in order to avoid speaking to Gina. “You’ve been married to someone for 16 years and you can’t even ring them and have a conversation with them and [ask] how the children are doing?” Gina asks rhetrocially. She describes the “clever” way that Halimah has sent her “sad emojis” during recent video calls to communicate how she feels; the children, she says, often look “unhappy” or “fed-up”.
“They’re not free to say anything they want. If the camera moves we can usually see [Kamel] sitting there or talking in the background. They don’t go outside to play; they look quite bored because they just live in apartments.”
Gina believes that his plan was to provoke her to have a mental breakdown in order to present her to the authorities as an unfit mother, and unable to look after the children still in Ireland. She now fears that her estranged husband is attempting to convince Faatimah to join her siblings in Algeria. Recently, he is said to have arranged for Algerian travel documents to be sent to her via a friend in Ireland, but Faatimah confided the plan to her mother who reported the matter to the police.
[The children] want to see their brothers and sisters but they don’t want to live in Algeria because they live here, this is where their friends are and family.
Gina has received help from Reunite International as well as Interpol’s European Arrest Warrant team for Kemal’s breach of court orders. The British Embassy in Algiers placed her in contact with Algerian NGO SOS Femmes in Distress, while in Ireland the Department of Foreign Affairs has provided Gina with ongoing consular assistance.
She has also set up an online petition which has amassed over 8,000 signatures calling for Ireland’s Prime Minister Leo Varadkar to “personally intervene and speak to the Algerian President and Prime Minister.”
Last week, Gina was granted an audience with the Director of Consular Services in Ireland, Pat Bourne, who will be working with the Irish Ambassador in Algeria, Brefni O’Reilly. “We’re working on the legal side of things and trying to see if there is any way the case can be brought on my behalf rather than me having to go to Algeria, because it’s dangerous for me there,” she explains.
Gina understands that this will take some time and that engaging directly with the Algerian legal system and not just through diplomatic channels will prove difficult. Extradition of the children is also unlikely, as Algeria is not signed up to the Hague Convention on Child Abduction and does not have an extradition treaty with Ireland.
According to figures released last year by the Department of Justice in Dublin, 320 applications were submitted to the Irish Central Authority for Child Abduction in 2015; like Gina’s case, 159 of those are ongoing.
The latest figures released by Reunite indicate a 47 per cent increase in the number of child abduction cases reported to their advice line. Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office has dealt with 301 new cases in 2017 and early 2018.
The distraught mother draws parallels between her own case and that of 21-year-old Irish-Egyptian citizen Ibrahim Halawa who returned to Ireland last year after four years of imprisonment in Egypt due to his participation in the Rabaa Al-Adawiyya protests during the Arab Spring. “I just want my children to have the same support that Ibrahim Halawa got,” she points out. “They are certainly not getting anywhere near the same support at the moment.”
The family’s situation has also recently been featured in the Algerian media. Kamel spoke last week to Echourouk and claimed that he “returned” the children to Algeria to “save” them from their “gambling and alcoholic mother” who he accuses of not taking medication for a number of mental breakdowns.
He also claims that Gina gave him food laced with poison when he was in Ireland, an accusation that she denies categorically. Moreover, in January 2015, Irish social workers paid a visit to her home and found no evidence of alcoholism or gambling. “I was doing a Master’s degree, I obviously wasn’t going out drinking and gambling like he alleged.”
What’s more, Kamel was not living with her at the time that he claims to have been poisoned, and he made no mention of this when he filed for divorce and sole custody in January 2016. According to Gina, his accusations against her are clear fabrications and the result of his “extreme” mental health problems and paranoia.
She believes that he left the family as a result of receiving a letter a few days beforehand in which he was told to pay maintenance arrears amounting to €2,500. “Four days after he got that letter he booked tickets for Algeria which cost the same as the arrears owed. That’s why he went.”
Gina hasn’t pressed criminal charges against Kamel in the hope that this will entice him to return. “If he brings [the children] back and apologises and says that he was suffering from stress, he knows that he won’t be put into prison.”
If Kamel reads this article, she tells me, this is what she wants to say to him: “His three children in Ireland miss him terribly too. It’s not a case of me wanting to take the three children away from the father. I want him to come to all of his children. My sons are without their father and my children are in Algeria without a mother.” She is adamant on one last point: “It makes no sense.”